Saturday, June 15, 2013

ReThink London: pretty words and hollow promises

London planner: Dir. John Fleming
In my opinion, and in the opinion of others with whom I have talked at ReThink London events, the ReThink London project is falling flat. It is a lot of talk using pretty sounding phrases but that may be about all.

Planning a city is a big job and not one to be done by committee and consensus. What London needs is vision, imagination and knowledgeable leadership. The city planner should be rallying Londoners around his or her brilliant ideas and not asking, no pleading, for ideas from the electorate. This does not mean the city planners should have closed minds but rather they should have firm ideas of their own through which to filter the suggestions from the public.

For instance, ReThink London talks a great deal about wanting to create a compact city, to stop sprawl. And this is what Londoners want, we are told. But take a drive down Wonderland Road South, the new gateway to the city, and look at the long row of box stores popping up.

And what surrounds these stores? Acres and acres of asphalt. This is just unimaginative, bad planning. The planning in London is poor and fine words and pretty phrases won't change that fact for those who open their eyes and look.

Alternative to London box store developments.
Now, check out this picture taken in a chain-store mall development in Ohio. Note the apartments above the stores. Note the wide sidewalks. This is a shopping district that looks very much like commercial areas of North American cities of the past.

This commercial area in Ohio isn't perfect but I am sure our city planners are familiar with it. Take the idea from Ohio, it is also being tried in other communities, and improve upon what the Yanks have done.

I look at the Wonderland Rd. S. box stores and at the outdoor mall going up at the corner of Col. Talbot and Southdale Rd. W. and I am disgusted and disappointed. What I am seeing is NOT what was being promised for these areas a couple of decades ago.

At that time there was talk of new urbanism, of walkable communities and of compact development. The London Free Press had a weekend feature detailing what was planned. Doesn't that all sound oh-so-familiar?

ReThink London invited the fired director of planning for Vancouver, B.C., Brent Toderian to speak at one of the ReThink events. Toderian told the audience how box stores like Home Depot were being encouraged by the west coast city's planning department to build apartments above their urban outlets.

Winners, HomeSense and The Home Depot in Vancouver. Note apartments.
Now that is compact urban thinking.

I'm going to send a link to this blog to ReThink London. I've done this in the past and I have never received more than a computer generated thank you and we'll get back to you soon message. ReThink London is opening doors to communication with the community. Bunkum!


  1. Quite incomprehensible why you would say ReThink is not delivering anything. It's not even finished is public participation phase!

    Blaming the poor development of the past on the current ReThink process is mis-guided. If we want the new compact urbanism approach to take real hold, there has to be a wide spectrum of stakeholders behind it to ensure it happens. That is not accomplished by expert planners simply 'telling' London how it should be. That approach has been tried and failed (as per your examples). 'Telling' creates no buy in and no effectiveness.

    I hear your frustration with our current development pattern. I share it. But laying blame on ReThink is, imo, shallow, and plays no positive role in moving London forward.

  2. First, thanks for the comment.

    Now, you raise a valid issue: Is it fair to blame poor past development on the current ReThink process? No, of course not. But I fear the errors of the past, and present, are being woven into the fabric of ReThink London.

    A great deal I hear at ReThink events sounds like stuff I've heard in the past. I can recall promises and drawings showing changes once proposed for Centennial Hall. Never happened.

    I recall rows of trees to be planted. The city did plant them, didn't water them, let 'em die and removed 'em. Many holes are paved over.

    I could go on but you get the idea. I hear what is being said but I don't hear commitment.

    Take urban sprawl. John Fleming tells us Londoners want a more compact city. To this end, three scenarios for future growth have been presented: compact scenario, hybrid scenario spread scenario. Only the compact scenario doesn't require more farmland.

    City planning director John Fleming called the compact scenario "extreme" in The London Free Press. The scenario ReThink wants is "extreme"? Fleming doesn't hold out much hope for the compact scenario. Fleming went on to say London will need more farmland in the near future.

    Are there really no solutions to London sprawl? Of course there are but you won't find them in the ReThink London package. The solutions cloaked in the ReThink mantra are not solutions at all. Nor do they answer the demands apparently being voiced by those attending the meetings.

    You write that "expert planners simply 'telling' London how it should be . . . creates no buy in and no effectiveness." I question whether the ReThink events do that.

    At one meeting a lady asked if the traditional grid pattern of city streets was best at conserving land. He tried to brush aside the question. I got his attention and reminded him of the work done by CMHC on the fused grid. He acknowledged he knew about CMHC's work but still dodged the lady's question. Why has the fused grid never been discussed, to the best of my knowledge, at a ReThink London event?

    At another ReThink event, a London developer sketched his design suggestions for the downtown on a map of the core. After the meeting I tried to give the map with the developer's thoughts to a ReThink staffer. They refused it. They were only collecting comment cards. I took the map home.

    I am finding the whole thing very manipulative. Think of the Visual Preference Survey introduced at a ReThink London event. Those in attendance were asked to vote using their smart phones. I guessed the images the audience would rank in the top two positions almost every time. If I could do that, I am sure the planners designing the survey also knew how the survey would unfold.

    Lastly, I am very suspicious of the 10,000 plus number for participants being bandied about by the ReThink team. Let's examine the Show and Tell section of the ReThink site. The 5 sections have attracted 32 images and the voting interest is low, too.

    Join the conversation is another area on the ReThink site. It has two sections with two questions in each. Comment numbers are as low as 81 and as high as 1155.

    How many of these comments, like the Show and Tell images, are multiple comments from one person. How many are useful and how many are useless like: Build hwy through city, NHL team, get rid of the mayor, more shops and a mall, The Olympics here...

    Many of these suggestions are Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) I examined one page and found about 47 anonymous and only three signed. A lot were Submitted by Participant - (not verified).

    I doubt 10,000 Londoners have gotten involved with this effort.